Top Ten Film Noirs

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10. Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944)

One of the quintessential film noirs – directed by Billy Wilder, written by Raymond Chandler from a James M. Cain novella and starring Barbara Stanwyck as the memorable femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson. Told through voiceover and series of extended flashbacks/memories, this is an undoubted benchmark of the genre.

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9. Night and the City (Dassin, 1950)

Rotten and pessimistic to the core, Night and the City was Dassin’s first film following his exile from America for his alleged Communist tendencies and tells of the demise of a petty criminal (Richard Widmark) as he becomes involved in the world of a pro wrestling promoter and underworld boss. Set in London, the film has few, if any, likeable or relatable characters and is ripe with existentialism at its most despairing.

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8. Le Samouraï  (Melville, 1967)

The only purely non-American film on list, although Melville was fascinated with both the country and the noir genre. Arguably the great French director’s purest noir – indeed it’s largely a retelling of the Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake starring This Gun For Hire (Tuttle, 1942). Melville regular Alain Delon takes Ladd’s role of a solitary hitman double-crossed by his bosses. This marked the beginning of an even more gritty and bleak turn for Melville’s later films.

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7. Klute (Pakula, 1971)

The first of Pakula’s so-called ‘paranoia trilogy’ (along with The Parallax View and All the President’s Men), whilst not a typical film noir in the strictest sense, does have many of the elements. Private eye Klute (Donald Sutherland) is hired to investigate the disappearance of a business executive, which leads him to freelance call girl Bree (Oscar-winning performance from Jane Fonda). What follows is an evocative psychological thriller laced with twists and paranoia.

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6. Memento (Nolan, 2000)

The film that brought Nolan to a lot of people’s attention. This intriguing and twisting tale is told backwards whilst being intercut with a series of chronologically shown flashbacks. Guy Pearce’s Leonard Shelby suffers with a form of amnesia that renders him unable to store new memories. As he searches for the truth behind the rape and murder of his wife he tattoos his body with clues and snaps polaroids, all the while sourcing help from shady undercover cop Teddy and manipulative bartender Natalie. A truly mind-bending neo-noir.

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5. Brick (Johnson, 2005)

The setting of Brick may say high-school rom-com but the plot, dialogue and action are straight from the pages of hardboiled film noir. Boasting a breakthrough performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, Johnson’s debut film tells of Brendan’s search for the truth after he discovers the body of his ex-girlfriend. Every inch the archetypal gumshoe, Brendan encounters shady gangsters, corrupt authorities and a foxy femme fatale, as he coolly takes a beating or two along the way, in true Bogart style. Excellent, period Hammett-esque dialogue and brilliant performances.

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4. Gilda (Vidor, 1946)

Rita Hayworth is as alluring and unforgettable as any femme fatale before or since in the title role of Charles Vidor’s classic noir. Noir regular Glenn Ford plays small-time gambler Johnny Farrell whose love-hate relationship with Gilda sizzles and crackles throughout the film. Admittedly the film has an ending perhaps more at home in melodrama than noir, but nevertheless, with snappy dialogue, twist after twist and genuinely unforgettable scenes, Gilda remains a classic.

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3. The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946)

Bogart. Bacall. Hawks. Chandler. The Big Sleep is one of the most engaging and twisting film noirs ever brought to screen. Bogart and Bacall have chemistry galore in their second outing on screen together, as the former’s smooth, quick witted Phillip Marlowe meets his match in the latter’s Vivian Rutledge. Perhaps the best film noir from the classic period.

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2. Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)

Boasts one of the best casts in noir history featuring the likes of Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, Marlene Dietrich and the incomparable writer and director Orson Welles. As technically brilliant as any film on this list, the opening three minute plus tracking shot is cinema at its best. Welles is on top form as the despicable corrupt cop Hank Quinlan who draws the attention of straight-laced Government official Ramon Miguel Vargas (Heston). Widely considered the final film noir of the classic period, and certainly one of the best.

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1. Chinatown (Huston, 1974)

The finest example from the genre’s second coming during the New Hollywood era of the 60s and 70s. The weather may be different – sun-soaked, sandy deserts replace the typical rain-drenched alleyways – but the events and inhabitants are no less noir. Jack Nicholson is excellent as smart-mouthed private detective Jake Gittes and director, Huston, is terrifying as the appalling and monstrous Noah Cross. Gittes is hired to investigate a government engineer by his wife, who suspects him of having an affair. When the man turns up murdered after Gittes believes he’s caught him in the act, he realises he’s been set –up and so becomes embroiled in a story of scandal, corruption and the dark secret of a powerful and dangerous man. An incredible film, permeated with evil and corruption and a flawed and tragic hero. Film noir at its best.

Honourable mentions: Laura (Preminger, 1944); The Killers (Siodmak, 1946); The Big Heat (Lang, 1953); The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973) and Sin City (Miller & Rodriguez, 2005).

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